Days out

London’s Secret Places #2 | Stanley Halls and Coffee Craft

All parents need coffee and the merest sniff of a new caffeine dispensary will bring them flocking, especially if the local area is somewhat lacking in this regard.

This weekend our noses were set twitching by an arts and crafts and coffee pop-up reviving an old Victorian theatre where Ronnie Corbett once played in pantomime!

Stanley Halls featured

Deep in South East London, almost as far as you can go without crossing into Surrey, lived a man called William Stanley. 

A Victorian inventor, philanthropist and renaissance man he lived a long, successful, and much-lauded life, which came to an end in the rather anonymous suburb of South Norwood in 1909 at the grand old age of 80.

In his final years William established the Stanley Technical Trades School in 1901 to give local boys a general education and a trade. Alongside the school in 1903 Baron Ritchie of Dundee (I don’t know what he was doing in Croydon) built the Stanley Halls to give the local population somewhere to attend concerts, plays, lectures, and basically keep them out of the pubs and mischief.

For a time Stanley Halls drew a wealth of local and international stars to tread the boards, including Shirley Bassey, MattMunro and Johnny Dankworth.

Then, sadly, as so often happened with grand Victorian theatres and music halls, the building slowly fell into a state of disrepair. By the 21st Century the future was looking bleak but in 2008 an article in the local paper galvanised the council and community into action to save the Halls.

Now, after years of wrangles about ownership and planning the Halls are once more in use, being restored, and finding a new place in the heart of the community.

With property in the area still relatively cheap for London the young creatives of the city are finding their way to this once overlooked backwater. And with them comes a desire for coffee, cake, craftiness, and a little bit of retro chintz.

On a sunny August Saturday we decided to pay a visit to Stanley Halls to sample a new pop-up cafe from husband and wife team Nick and Michelle Shaw. They’ve been given a ten week stint in the former manager’s house adjoining the Halls and have created a beautiful snuggery of charm called Coffee Craft.

It’s not obvious where the entrance is so if you go please look carefully!

We walked beneath a lovely archway containing what looked like a relief carving of a pineapple and found ourselves in a quiet alley between the buildings. Brightly coloured bunting wafted in the breeze above a cute red table and chairs and a welcome sign.

Inside Nick and Michelle were buzzing about and welcoming patrons to a counter stacked with tempting treats courtesy of Sophie’s Cake Studio in Sydenham. Nick is an actor who recently appeared in the RSC’s Wolf Hall and Michelle is a theatrical costume maker who is also running Crafternoon Tea workshops. Not your usual coffee shop proprietors!

Considering this is not a permanent fixture we were very impressed by what they’ve done with the place. The atmosphere was like stepping back into a 1950s village hall – a world away from the traffic clogged high street outside.

Beyond the counter is an utterly charming parlour laid out with six or seven tables, all vintage pieces mix and matched to perfection.

Your teas, coffees and cakes are all served on vintage china and iced drinks in jam jars – all very hip and kooky (in a good way). There is even an armchair by the fireplace in case you need a snooze after all that cake! Outside is a small garden with a bench but no tables when we visited.

The entrance is accessible by ramp so buggy and wheelchair friendly. And there’s enough room to park your chariot out of the way – something you don’t always get in a cafe! It’s not somewhere you could let your little one run amok but there are plenty of high chairs and as we all know it’s easy to keep children quiet with cake or a pastry.

Nick told us that they need to convince the Stanley Halls trustees that Coffee Craft is something good for the community and should be allowed to stay after the trial period. I can’t think of anything the area needs more at the moment quite frankly so we will be giving them our business and doing all we can to spread the word.

It was great to see so many other people there, it felt like there was a real buzz about the place, and a camaraderie that you get when local people discover something new, fresh, and pleasant sprouting up that isn’t a big chain and is part of revitalising an area.

So if you are in South East London in the next couple of months please pop in to Coffee Craft and see what else is happening at Stanley Halls. Here’s how to get there.

And before I sign off let’s also doff our caps to Mr William Stanley who patented, among other marvels, these items we would all be poorer without:

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